BibliOdyssey // Public Domain 
BibliOdyssey // Public Domain 

The Deadly Pain Medicine Sold by Skeletons

BibliOdyssey // Public Domain 
BibliOdyssey // Public Domain 

These days, we’re used to pharmaceutical advertising featuring pastel shades, dulcet tones, and 10 paragraphs of fine print. But at the end of the 1800s, one St. Louis company marketed their signature pain-relieving product with a series of macabre calendars featuring skeletons at work and play. Ironically, the very product they were advertising would later be shown to be fatal.

Although the name of the company—and the images—seem vaguely European, the Antikamnia Chemical Company was a home-grown affair. The company was founded by two former drug store owners in St. Louis in the late 1880s to sell Antikamnia, a medicine designed to combat both pain and fever (the name comes from Greek words meaning “opposed to pain”). Although the formula of Antikamnia varied over time, its principal ingredient was always acetanilide, a coal tar derivative. The company touted its little white pills as a “certain remedy, unattended by any danger,” useful for everything from flu to headaches, and especially handy taken as a preventative before sports or even shopping.

Wellcome Images // Public Domain

The company aggressively marketed its goods to physicians with direct mailings and promotional products. (Although the medicine was never patented and required no prescription, its makers hoped the freebies would entice doctors to recommend the products.) One of those promotional goods was a limited-edition calendar created for the years 1897 to 1901, and featuring the darkly comic illustrations of one Louis Crusius. A doctor as well as an artist, Crusius’s illustrations once graced the windows of the drug store he co-owned in St. Louis. In 1893, he’d published The Funny Bone, a compilation of his jokes and drawings. His calendars, though, seem to have been his most successful effort, and they still routinely fetch hundreds of dollars on eBay, at antique stores, and on ephemera-related sites. Sadly, Crusius wouldn’t survive the run of his calendars—he died in 1898, at age 35, of renal cell carcinoma.

And as it turned out, the calendars themselves were promoting a dangerous product. Acetanilide, the coal-tar derivative, had the unfortunate side effect of producing cyanosis, meaning it turned extremities blue from a lack of oxygen. Deaths related to the ingredient were reported as early as 1891. One 1907 article in the California State Journal of Medicine article entitled “Poisoning by Antikamnia” described a woman who had taken the drug as being “practically without pulse, cyanosed, with shallow breathing, and a ‘leaky skin.'”

Fortunately, Antikamnia was an early target of the progressive campaigners at the FDA, which ruled in 1907 that products containing acetanilide had to be clearly labeled as such. However, the company attempted to skirt the rules by changing its product in the U.S. market to contain acetaphenetidin, an acetanilid derivative, and then advertising that its product was acetanilide-free. That worked for a little while, but as the journal Confluence explains, in 1910 U.S. marshals seized a shipment for violating the Pure Food and Drug Act, and the case that followed went all the way to the Supreme Court.

The Court eventually ruled that Antikamnia was in violation of the Act for not stating that the drug contained an acetanilid derivative, a ruling that was considered a landmark in support of Progressive Era reform. The Antikamnia Chemical Company’s fortunes tanked not long afterward, although not before making founder of the company Frank A. Ruf rich. At his death in 1923, his estate was worth more than $2 million.

While the calendars survive as a charming memento of a time when pharmaceutical advertising could be a little less saccharine, it’s hard not to wonder what the victims of Antikamnia might have made of these frolicking skeletons if they had only known what was really being advertised.

But despite its dangers, Antikamnia does seem to have been effective at dampening pain. About 50 years later, scientists discovered that the primary metabolic product of acetanlilide is paracetamol, now known as acetaminophen—or Tylenol.


All images via BibliOdyssey // Public Domain unless otherwise specified.

Rebecca O'Connell (Getty Images) (iStock)
How Frozen Peas Made Orson Welles Lose It
Rebecca O'Connell (Getty Images) (iStock)
Rebecca O'Connell (Getty Images) (iStock)

Orson Welles would have turned 103 years old today. While the talented actor/director/writer leaves behind a staggering body of work—including Citizen Kane, long regarded as the best film of all time—the YouTube generation may know him best for what happened when a couple of voiceover directors decided to challenge him while recording an ad for Findus frozen foods in 1970.

The tempestuous Welles is having none of it. You’d do yourself a favor to listen to the whole thing, but here are some choice excerpts.

After he was asked for one more take from the audio engineer:

"Look, I’m not used to having more than one person in there. One more word out of you and you go! Is that clear? I take directions from one person, under protest … Who the hell are you, anyway?"

After it was explained to him that the second take was requested because of a “slight gonk”:

"What is a 'gonk'? Do you mind telling me what that is?"

After the director asks him to emphasize the “in” while saying “In July”:

"Why? That doesn't make any sense. Sorry. There's no known way of saying an English sentence in which you begin a sentence with 'in' and emphasize it. … That's just stupid. 'In July?' I'd love to know how you emphasize 'in' in 'in July.' Impossible! Meaningless!"

When the session moved from frozen peas to ads for fish fingers and beef burgers, the now-sheepish directors attempt to stammer out some instructions. Welles's reply:

"You are such pests! ... In your depths of your ignorance, what is it you want?"

Why would the legendary director agree to shill for a frozen food company in the first place? According to author Josh Karp, whose book Orson Welles’s Last Movie chronicles the director’s odyssey to make a “comeback” film in the 1970s, Welles acknowledged the ad spots were mercenary in nature: He could demand upwards of $15,000 a day for sessions, which he could use, in part, to fund his feature projects.

“Why he dressed down the man, I can't say for sure,” Karp says. “But I know that he was a perfectionist and didn't suffer fools, in some cases to the extreme. He used to take a great interest in the ads he made, even when they weren't of his creation.”

The Findus session was leaked decades ago, popping up on radio and in private collections before hitting YouTube. Voiceover actor Maurice LaMarche, who voiced the erudite Brain in Pinky and the Brain, based the character on Welles and would recite his rant whenever he got the chance.

Welles died in 1985 at the age of 70 from a heart attack, his last film unfinished. While some saw the pea endorsement as beneath his formidable talents, he was actually ahead of the curve: By the 1980s, many A-list stars were supplementing their income with advertising or voiceover work.

“He was a brilliant, funny guy,” Karp says. “There's a good chance he'd think the pea commercial was hilarious.” If not, he’d obviously have no problem saying as much.

How Google Chrome’s New Built-In Ad Blocker Will Change Your Browsing Experience

If you can’t stand web ads that auto-play sound and pop up in front of what you’re trying to read, you have two options: Install an ad blocker on your browser or avoid the internet all together. Starting Thursday, February 15, Google Chrome is offering another tool to help you avoid the most annoying ads on the web, Tech Crunch reports. Here’s what Google Chrome users should expect from the new feature.

Chrome’s ad filtering has been in development for about a year, but the details of how it will work were only recently made public. “While most advertising on the web is respectful of user experience, over the years we've increasingly heard from our users that some advertising can be particularly intrusive,” Google wrote in a blog post. “As we announced last June, Chrome will tackle this issue by removing ads from sites that do not follow the Better Ads Standards.

That means the new feature won’t block all ads from publishers or even block most of them. Instead, it will specifically target ads that violate the Better Ad Standards that the Coalition for Better Ads recommends based on consumer data. On desktop, this includes auto-play videos with sound, sticky banners that follow you as you scroll, pop-ups, and prestitial ads that make you wait for a countdown to access the site. Mobile Chrome users will be spared these same types of ads as well as flashing animations, ads that take up more than 30 percent of the screen, and ads the fill the whole screen as you scroll past them.

These criteria still leave room for plenty of ads to show up online—the total amount of media blocked by the feature won’t even amount to 1 percent of all ads. So if web browsers are looking for an even more ad-free experience, they should use Chrome’s ad filter as a supplement to one of the many third-party ad blockers out there.

And if accessing content without navigating a digital obstacle course first doesn’t sound appealing to you, don’t worry: On sites where ads are blocked, Google Chrome will show a notification that lets you disable the feature.

[h/t Tech Crunch]


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